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Senate Focuses on Gun Violence; Gabrielle Giffords Arrives at Gun Hearing

Aired January 30, 2013 - 10:00   ET


JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right, that's right, the District of Columbia against Heller. And they upheld the right of people to own guns. The question, of course, here and what you can expect this committee to really drill down on is what is reasonable gun ownership? This is something we haven't heard so much about.

There's been a lot of talk about so-called assault weapons. But what's reasonable? For example, AR-15s, which are semiautomatic rifles widely considered assault weapons are extremely popular across the United States. Police departments use them everywhere. So is it reasonable to ban those are what's unreasonable? The same thing with large capacity magazines for rounds, what is reasonable?

A lot of police departments, a lot of Americans all over have large capacity magazines that hold as many as 19 rounds. You can certainly expect all of that to be considered and when you look at the witness list, there are not just gun control advocates.

There is a professor from the University of Denver Law School who is going to talk about what I just talked about. There is a representative of the independent women's forum, women who are strong gun rights activists. You can expect this to be balanced as they get down to what the constitution will bear considering the Supreme Court's ruling.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: And that's really the key question because, of course, you can make a list of guns and ban them legislatively assuming if they can get through the House, which is, of course, a big challenge. President Obama can sign it into law, but then the pesky Supreme Court can step in and say you're not allowed to do that and we told you that in 2008 with the Heller decision.

JOHNS: That's absolutely right. This country has been fighting this issue for years and years. The last time, we really fought this battle was in the mid to early 1990s. A lot has changed since then and a lot of views about these firearms have changed as well.

TAPPER: Dana, a couple of the senators on the Judiciary Committee were trying to bring firearms to the hearing. Tell us about that.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ted Cruz of Texas had planned and publicly said that they were asking for permission from the D.C. government and lots of other organizations that they needed to ask permission for to bring in guns to have a show and tell as part of their Q and A with these witnesses.

They were not able to do that. A spokesman for graham told me that there was just too much red tape particularly because of the fact that D.C. laws are very strict when it comes to guns and especially when it comes to the kind of assault weapons that they wanted to bring in.

Instead Graham at least is going to have pictures, posters of the kind of guns that he is going to talk about that he wanted to show as part of his Q and A. We reported last week on a big press conference that Dianne Feinstein did and she was able to bring guns in. She had ten displayed on cork boards.

She did that after weeks and weeks of discussions with the D.C. police, with capitol police, because bringing assault weapons into the capitol, into D.C. in general but the capitol is not an easy thing to do.

TAPPER: Right now. We can see Senator Dianne Feinstein on the left side of the screen talking with New York Senator Chuck Schumer. These are senior members of the Judiciary Committee. Feinstein, of course, was the chief author of the so-called assault weapons ban.

There is David Keened of the National Rifle Association. He is there as part of a big show of muscle by that powerful lobbying organization. Dana, having covered these type of hearings in the past, sometimes there's a mood.

You can sense whether it's tension, whether it's emotion, obviously Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' presence there is worth noting. Is there anything discernible that you are detecting? Is there tension? Angry stares between Feinstein and La Pierre. What are you picking up?

BASH: So far no angry stares. I think the best way to describe it is high anticipation. This is the very first hearing of this issue since the shootings at Newtown and the first hearing that any congressional committee is having since Democrats in particular said they were going to take on the gun issue once again after leaving it alone for more than a decade because it was bad politics for them.

I think high anticipation for sure especially since we've been reporting that Gabrielle Giffords herself who was a member of this congressional body is going to come and testify on her change of heart frankly on guns since she herself was shot a bullet through the head. She's represented a gun loving district in Arizona.

She herself is a gun owner. She is going to sit next to her husband, Mark Kelly, and give an opening statement talking about the fact that she does believe now there has to be curbs on gun rights and he himself told me that they pretty much support everything that is in Dianne Feinstein's bill which is pretty strict, a ban on assault weapons.

They want to limit magazines to ten clips. He told me if that had happened, six people who died in an attempt to kill Gabrielle Giffords, many of those people wouldn't have died. TAPPER: We're waiting right now for the Senate Judiciary Chairman, Pat Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, to come and deliver his opening statement. We have seen the opening statement of La Pierre and, Joe, what did you discern from his remarks?

JOHNS: The thing I want to talk about the NRA and La Pierre is sort of fascinating over the past few days we've been looking and others have been looking at the clout of the National Rifle Association especially in the last election.

The results are actually surprising. They spent a lot of money on a lot of candidates frankly who lost, which is really interesting. They spent a lot of money trying to defeat people.

To some degree the NRA is in a position where it has to sort of reassert itself and show its members that it can get things done because they were on the losing end of many races in the last election. Wayne La Pierre we do expect certainly to stand up for the rights of gun owners in this country.

They've been adamant about not liking virtually all of the parts of this assault weapons ban that's been proposed by Senator Dianne Feinstein. On the other hand, they have said again and again that they support more restraints on the mentally ill getting certain firearms and those kinds of things.

They have actually supported that since 1993, but it's something that we haven't been able to get through partially they say because of the mental health lobby saying we don't want to invade people's privacy and we don't want to create barriers to people getting treatment.

TAPPER: That's right. It's been 47 days since the horrific shooting at Newtown, Connecticut, with 20 children killed, 26 individuals at Sandy Hook Elementary School killed. In that time, the NRA has gained half a million members adding to their 4 million members. Having seen Wayne La Pierre, CEO of NRA, having seen his prepared remarks, what tone do you anticipate him taking?

BASH: You know, he's going to be as combative as ever. He has made very clear since that famous press conference that he gave, it wasn't a press conference. It was a long statement. He didn't take reporters' questions, but in the days after Newtown that he's simply not going to stand by and let in his words, the president and others take gun owners guns away.

He's going to reiterate his call for arming the guards at school and believe that's the best way to combat the violence that is going on. Also that the best way is to put more focus on mental health problems and issues.

I think what we're going to hear from him in the opening statement is going to be pretty familiar. Obviously the most fascinating is the way he interacts with some of the most ardent supporters of gun control particularly Dianne Feinstein.

You know, when it comes to the two of them I spoke to Senator Feinstein yesterday about it, they have been to this rodeo before. They were at opposite ends of this back in the '90s the last time.

And there was significant gun control that passed the crime bill and assault weapons ban and she debated him several times. I asked if there was any kind of back channel, any kind of quiet discussion where they could find any common ground and her answer was no.

TAPPER: If I can just interrupt for one second. We see there, Mark Kelly and former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. That is Pat Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. There is Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. He knows Gabrielle Giffords. They used to be in the same congressional delegation when both were members of the House.

She of course resigned after the shooting. He has been upgraded to a Senate position. There is Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa on the right. He's the ranking Republican and Mark Kelly, former space shuttle commander and Gabrielle Giffords live picture heading into the Senate Judiciary Committee.

There is Senator Al Franken of Minnesota greeting Gabrielle Giffords. We all remember, of course, after the shooting when she months later returned to Capitol Hill what an incredibly emotional moment it was for Democrats and Republicans. She was a very popular member of the House of Representatives.

She was in a swing district and had a lot of friends on both sides of the aisle and of course, the shooting at the hands of Jared Lee Loughner who used a Glock 19 semi-automatic handgun who was sentenced to seven consecutive life terms plus 140 years without a parole.

A tragic affair with six others killed in that same attack. Dana, what's the mood there as former Congresswoman Giffords make her way through the committee hearing room?

BASH: I mean, frankly, I think for anybody looking at her, the mood is one of awe that she is - -given what happened to her, again, a bullet through her head. She is able to come and walk through these halls into this hearing room and she will be able to give a statement.

No matter what you think of her position now or before on guns, I think this human story of her able to survive and thrive is pretty remarkable. One sort of side note, I want to mention, you mentioned Jeff Flake, the senator from Arizona, greeting her. He's a Republican.

The two of them are very good friends. If things had gone a different way, if she had not been shot, she most definitely would have run for Senate against Jeff Flake. She could be somebody sitting in this hearing room on the other side had things been different.

So it just sort of reminds you of how, you know, one event can really change the course of somebody's life and change the course of a lot of lives.

TAPPER: Dana, this is obviously a very emotional issue because of the Sandy Hook tragedy and we're reminded two years and a few days after the tragic shooting of Congresswoman Giffords and six other individuals who were killed in that parking lot in Arizona on January 8th, 2011.

We're reminded of the emotions in this issue. Do you think quickly that it will make a difference or should it even make a difference? Hold on one second. We're about to have the hearing begin. Senator Pat Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, is logging the hearing to order. Let's take a listen.


SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I ask everyone to be respectful of the senators and the witnesses speaking about this very serious subject. It means -- I do not want applause for or against any position I might take or anybody else takes.

Capitol police have been notified to remove any audience member that interferes with the orderly conduct of this important hearing. This is a warning I give at many hearings. We'll hear a lot of different perspectives on gun violence.

And both Senator Grassley and I will give opening statements, but we have a former member of Congress here, Gabby Giffords, who is going to give a brief message and Captain Kelly, thank you for your help in bringing your wife here -- Ms. Giffords?

FMR. REP. GABRIELLE GIFFORDS (D-AZ), SHOOTING SURVIVOR: OK, thank you for inviting me here today. This is an important conversation for our children, for our communities, for Democrats and Republicans. Speaking is difficult, but I need to say something important.

Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying, too many children. We must do something. It will be hard, but the time is now. You must act, be bold, be courageous. Americans are counting on you. Thank you.

LEAHY: Captain Kelly, do you want to help Ms. Giffords out? We'll give you a few moments. Return to the hearing. I thank former Congressman Giffords and her husband. We'll be calling up the witnesses shortly.

And Senator Grassley and I will give our opening statements. On December 14th, America's heart was broken when 20 young children and six dedicated educators were murdered. This is the first judiciary committee hearing of the 113th Congress.

I want everybody here to join discussions as part of a collective effort to find solutions to help ensure that no family, no school, no community, ever has to endure such a grievous tragedy again. We have to come together today as Americans seeking common cause.

I hope we can forego partisan recrimination. It's too important for that. We should all be here as Americans. Every American abhors the recent tragedies. Last two years, elementary school in Connecticut, movie theatre in Colorado, a sacred place of worship in Wisconsin, in front of a shopping mall in Arizona.

Americans are looking to us for solutions and for action. This committee is a focal point for that process. I have introduced a measure to provide law enforcement agencies with stronger tools against illegal gun trafficking. Others have proposed restrictions of military-style weapons and the size of ammunition clips.

Others have proposed modifications to the background check system to keep guns out of the wrong hands while not unnecessarily burdening law abiding citizens. I'm a life-long Vermonter. I know gun store owners in Vermont. They follow the law.

They conduct background checks to block the conveyance of guns to those who should not have them. And they wonder why others who sell guns do not have to follow these same protective rules. I agree with these responsible business owners.

If we could all agree that criminals and those adjudicated as mentally ill should not buy firearms, why should we not try to plug the loopholes in the laws that allow them to buy guns without background checks? It's a simple matter of common sense.

If we agree that background checks are worthwhile, shouldn't we try to improve the content and use it to be more effective. What responsible gun owner objects to improving the background check system? When I bought firearms in Vermont, I go through the background check.

I would expect everybody else to. At the outset of this hearing, I note that the Second Amendment is secure and will remain secure and protected. In two recent cases, the Supreme Court has confirmed that the Second Amendment, like the other aspects of our bill of rights, secures a fundamental individual right.

Americans have the right to self-defense, as the court has said to have guns in their homes to protect their families. No one can take away those rights or the guns. Second amendment rights of the foundation of which our discussion rests. They are not at risk.

What is at risk are lives, lives are risked when responsible people fail to stand up for laws and keep guns out of the hands of those who use them to commit murder especially mass murders. I ask we focus our discussion on additional statutory measures to better protect our children and all Americans.

I say this as a parent and as a grandparent. Ours is a free society, an open society. We come together today to consider how to become a safer and more secure society. No one begrudges the government assistance provided to victims of mass tragedies made possible by the law we passed after the bombing in Oklahoma City.

The bill introduced last week against gun trafficking was similar proved helpful and I believe it will become accepted part of our crime control framework. It is common sense reform. It fills a hole in our law enforcement arsenal so the straw purchases who acquire weapons for criminals can be prosecuted more effectively.

Last Thursday, the president nominated the U.S. attorney from Minnesota, and we have two from his state here on this committee. Nominated U.S. attorney to direct the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and I trust that all senators will cooperate in a prompt hearing and action on that nomination.

And join in good faith to strengthen law enforcement efforts against gun violence and to protect public safety. As a responsible gun owner, and someone who cherishes all of our constitutional rights, as a senator who has sworn oath to uphold those rights, as a father and a grandfather, and as a former prosecutor who has seen the results of gun violence firsthand in graphic detail, I undertake these efforts with hope that this hearing can build consensus around common sense solutions.

Previous measures to close the gun show loophole or to improve background check system have been bipartisan. I hope in this new Congress further improvements will also become bipartisan. We can act together as Americans. Now, I understand what kind of measures I can support.

I'll ask other senators to come forward and do that as well. I will ask our witnesses what legislative proposals they support to make America safer, and I thank everybody here for joining in today's discussion -- Senator Grassley.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-IA), RANKING MEMBER, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Mr. Chairman, thank you as well for this hearing and thanks to everybody who is here and particularly our witnesses. What happened at Newtown shocks our nation.

We will never forget where we were or how we reacted when we learned that 20 very young children or six adults were killed that day or if we forgot about that specific incident, you don't forget about all of the tragedies that have happened recently.

As a grandfather and great grandfather, I cannot imagine how anyone would commit an evil act like that. I cannot ever begin to know what it would be like to be a relative of one of those slain children. We pray for the families who continue to mourn the loss of loved ones.

We pray for all victims of violence and guns, by guns and otherwise. Clearly violent crimes and those who commit them are a plague on our society, one that has been with us for far too long. We have looked at these issues before, but I welcome this renewed discussion.

I think the need for the Judiciary Committee to hold hearings after Newtown is very clear. All over America people were appalled by what happened to those vulnerable and precious victims. We all want sensible actions that could reduce the likelihood of future crimes.

And we have extended a special welcome to former Congresswoman Giffords. She was doing what a representative should do. What I hope all of us do, taking the pulse of constituents to represent them in Congress. She was representing the people of her congressional district when a gunman opened fire.

The shooting was a horrible tragedy. Her determination to overcome her injuries, progress through rehabilitation and continued contribution to society are an inspiration or at least should be an inspiration to all of us. I thank her for being here today and with her husband, Captain Kelly.

Although Newtown and Tucson are terrible tragedies, the deaths in Newtown should not be used to put forward every gun control measure that has been floating around for years because the problem is greater than just guns alone, and I think the chairman's speech indicates that as well.

Any serious discussion of the causes of gun violence must include a complex re-examination of mental health as it relates to mass shootings, society as a whole has changed as well, and that statement is made.

It's difficult for me to measure it but you see a lack of civility in American society has grown considerably in the last couple decades. You see it here in the Congress as well when we are partisan and don't treat each other with the respect that we ought to.

There are too many video games that celebrate mass killing of innocent people, games that despite attempts at industry self-regulation find their way into the hands of children. An example, one video game released November 2009, which has sold over 22 million copies in the U.S. and U.K. was for foreign distribution because the opening level depicted shooting innocent civilians in an airport security line.

This game was specifically cited in a manifesto of the Norway mass shooter as, quote, "part of my training simulation" for carrying out his attacks. Where is the artistic value of shooting innocent victims?

I share Vice President Biden's disbelief of manufacture denial that these games have no effect on real world violence. Above all, we should not rush to pass legislation that will not reduce mass killings. Banning guns based on their appearance does not make sense.

The 1994 assault weapon ban did not stop Columbine. The Justice Department found the ban ineffective. Scholars have indicated that refining or expanding such legislation will not cut gun violence. I also question the limitation on magazine capacity.

They can be circumvented by caring many guns as many killers have done. We hear that no one needs to carry larger magazines than those that hunters use to shoot deer. An attacking criminal unlike a deer shoots back. I do not think that we -- I do think that we may be able to work together to prevent straw purchasers from trafficking in guns.

The oversight work that I conducted on illegal operation "Fast and Furious" shows that there are gaps in this area of law that should be closed. Besides legislative proposals that the president recently took 23 executive actions on guns and without knowing exactly how they're worded.

We can't find fault with them and probably should not find fault with a lot of his actions. Despite this administration's claim to be the most transparent in history, the text of these actions is not posted on the White House web site. Only very brief statements about what they do. All of those executive actions could have been issued four years ago or after the Tucson shooting or after Aurora. Why only now? One order directs the Center for Disease Control to research causes of gun violence. Contrary to what you may have heard, Congress has never prohibited CDC from researching gun violence.

Rather, Congress prevented federal research to, quote, "advocate or promote gun control," which some government researchers have been doing under the guise of taxpayer supported science. Had Congress actually prohibited gun violence research, the president could not legally have directed CDC to conduct that research.

I was taken aback when the president cited the declaration of independence and constitution as sources of government power to restrict gun ownership rights. The constitution, in fact, creates a limited federal government. It separates powers among branches of the federal government and preserves state power against federal power.

The framers believe that these structures would accurately control the government so as to protect individual liberty, but the American people disagree. They feared that the constitution gave the federal government so much power that it could violate individual rights so the Bill of Rights was added.

Each of those rights including the Second Amendment was adopted to further limit government power and protect individual rights. President Obama's remarks turned the constitution on its head. He said, quote, "the right to worship freely and safely, that right was denied to Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin."

The right to assemble peacefully was denied to shoppers and movie goers in Aurora, Colorado. That most fundamental set of rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness were denied to elementary school students in Newtown," end of quote. This is not so except for prohibition on slavery, the constitution limits only actions of government, not individuals.

So for instance, the right to peacefully assemble protects individual rights to organize, to protest and seek to change government action. That right is trivialized and mischaracterized as protecting shopping and watching movies and those constitutional rights are not the source of governmental power to enact legislation as the president suggested.

In fact, just the opposite, they were included in the Bill of Rights because throughout history governments have wanted to shut up those who would criticize government, to suppress unpopular religions or to disarm people.